The Life Changing Question - Part 4

Bob Leggitt | Sunday, 15 January 2012 |

This is the fourth part in my Life Changing Question series.

Part 1 gives you the background on what all this is about, and Parts 2 and 3 explore different types of powerful question. If you haven’t already read the previous parts, I’d recommend doing so before you read this, particularly as Part 1 provides a lot of information on the importance of moderating your question/answer ratio, and explains why asking, as opposed to answering questions, is so heavily linked with success. Here's the link to the start of the series...

The Life Changing Question - Part 1

If you've read the previous parts, let's move onto a highly manipulative type of question commonly used by businesses, on consumers...


When businesses ask us questions, they’re sometimes aiming to lead us into specific processes of thought and then trap us into specific responses. Naturally, the ultimate aim is to persuade us to buy, in defiance of common sense if necessary. The classic two-part trap involves an initial question designed by the business to create a problem of some sort – a problem the business knows it can solve. Once the consumer has unsuccessfully attempted to solve this newly generated problem, the business strikes with an unbeatable solution, thus leaving the consumer at a psychological dead end at which the only logical conclusion seems to be making a purchase.

This is all very well if the problem really does relate to the consumer, but very often it doesn’t. However, because us humans naturally rise to a challenge and like to prove ourselves by being able to solve problems, we try to answer these trap questions. In so doing, we ‘adopt’ a problem that doesn’t exist. The very fact that these traps are posed as questions and not statements is key to their success. Statements don’t provoke thought and can ‘go in one ear and out of the other’. Questions, if they’re to be answered, necessitate thought.

There are many good demonstrations of the way these trap questions can trick us into solving problems which don’t exist, but one of the best known in my part of the world is the riddle which describes a plane crash in the middle of the North Sea. The riddle details a complicated scenario in which the ‘plane is from one country, half the passengers are from another country, and the other half are from a third country – then asks where the survivors should be buried. Rather than immediately pointing out that survivors are still alive and would obviously not be buried, a high proportion of people will attempt to work out which country or countries should take care of any burials. Incredibly, people get so absorbed with trying to solve the problem, they completely overlook the fact that the problem doesn’t actually exist.

If we’re to avoid these psychological traps in the commercial world, it’s vital that we learn to look for them. It’s a case of questioning everything people say. Not necessarily out loud. Just questioning statements in our own minds in the first instance. Asking ourselves if the questions posed to us have any relevance, and if they don’t, dismissing them. If you’re dealing with a sophisticated business, the likelihood is that trap questions will feature heavily in their communication.

Businesses love questions which create problems where they don't exist. Some companies would barely sell a thing if they didn't ask them. "What will you do when your computer hard drive fails with all your vital data on it?"... "What will you do when your external water pipe bursts and you don't have any supply?"... Then the company comes in with its backup program, or insurance policy, or whatever. It all sounds fair enough, but in truth, you don't need to pay for a special program to back up a computer (the tools are inherent in the operating system), and you can't insure everything. You could go on insuring and insuring various things until you were bankrupt. But it makes far more sense to save some money for an emergency and use it in the event that something goes wrong. That way you're insured against a vast multitude of things, and you're not just throwing dead money at something which may not (and probably won't) ever happen. If nothing does go wrong, your savings are still yours. But by using these trap questions to create problems which don't exist, companies persuade us to spend lots of money we don't need to spend.

Here are a couple of typical examples of more simple trap questions used in the commercial environment. These questions are slightly different from the previous ones in that they don't specifically create a problem. They do, however, divert the focus of the consumer away from the reality of the situation, paving the way for the business to make extra profit. In the first part of each example, the consumer falls into the trap. In the second part, the consumer dismisses the trap question and therefore cannot be trapped by the business.

Vendor Question:How much would you expect to pay for three of these?
Consumer Answer: Oh… I don’t know… I could probably get three for £30.
Vendor Trap: Precisely. So how can you possibly turn down a price of just £22.99 for three?

And here's the same ploy with the answer the consumer should have given…

Vendor Question: How much would you expect to pay for three of these?
Consumer Answer: Your question is irrelevant because I don’t want three - I only want one.

With the initial question declared irrelevant, the vendor can no longer close the trap.

Vendor Question: “If you went to one of the posh London boutiques for an item like this, what sort of price d’you think you’d be looking at?
Consumer Answer: I really don't know to be honest.
Vendor Trap: Well let me assure you that some of the most prestigious shops charge up to £375 for these! So when I tell you I can offer this to you for just £249.99, you really can’t afford to miss out on that kind of saving…

And with the answer the consumer should have given…

Vendor Question: If you went to one of the posh London boutiques for an item like this, what sort of price d’you think you’d be looking at?
Consumer Answer: Your question is irrelevant because I buy from rockbottom discount stores or websites, and not expensive London boutiques. You need to be beating the lowest prices – not the highest.

The vendor can no longer close the trap.

Trap questions are manipulative and dangerous, and they cost some people a lot of money. Look out for them, and remember that the key to fighting them is in declaring them irrelevant. Only when you find it absolutely impossible to declare a question irrelevant should you consider answering it.

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